Saturday afternoon belonged to Loyola Chicago’s Aundre Jackson, a replacement starter who shot 11-12 for 24 points on the program that has long been one of the 5 best defensively in college basketball. The Aztecs knew they were walking into a date with a formidable opponent, but they didn’t bring their best to take down the Ramblers as part of the dreaded Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge series that was renewed against the wishes of the Mountain West coaches. This Aztecs team was a sure bet to be different. The roster is stocked with talented players that can put the ball in the basket, but how much would the defense fall off, if at all?
The Aztecs struggled mightily to contain dribble penetration. Clayton Custer and Milton Doyle canned enough of their pull up jumpers to put SDSU defenders in a difficult limbo—step up to take away an open jumper and you’ll be prone to a blow by. My undying appreciation of D’Erryl Williams’ (and Xavier Thames before him) ability to avoid being screened isn’t just a formality. The Ramblers set good enough screens Saturday to free up their ball handlers and get them going towards the rim. The Aztecs rotate extremely well on defense, but even the best rotations eventually will succumb to perfect spacing and crisp ball movement.
The Ramblers put on a beautiful display of drive and kick basketball. Somebody always stood waiting in the opposite corner, and the man with the ball often tossed it out there if he couldn’t get a shot off at the rim. When the Aztecs cranked up their full court pressure, Loyola guards carved their way through it with ease.
The Aztecs were in the bonus for the final 12-ish minutes, but couldn’t get to the line. The referees leaned more towards ‘let ’em play’ on many drives to the basket. But a few more foul calls wouldn’t erase the defensive struggles. Loyola shot 51% from the floor. The Aztecs hit 11 of 26 threes, but behind that high volume were two unfortunate truths: the Aztecs failed miserably in allowing Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham to attack mismatches and their guards could not get into the paint enough to create more for others.
Cheatham missed some great looks from in close and although the Aztecs turned it over just 12 times, Pope committed 4 on his own and only scored seven. The reported bushel of NBA scouts continues to follow this team for one reason—to see the 6’10 do-it-all forward prove that he can dominate full games over the course of a season.
The offensive struggles cannot be pinned on Cheatham and Pope alone. This Aztecs team does not have a chiseled identity. Trey Kell (16 points, 4-8 3PT) was very cautious in dancing around this idea after Saturday’s loss. This historically defense first program is not going to lock people up as well as they have in years past. How quickly will the coaching staff adjust to empower this team to find a groove? Which buttons need to be pushed to get started in the right direction?
The Aztecs went away from force-feeding Cheatham and Pope in the post after struggling some to work out of double teams sent by the Ramblers. Seeing the Aztecs struggle with a post double is painfully ironic, for more reason than one. Matt Shrigley and Max Hoetzel played fewer than 20 minutes. Those guys were born to burn opponents for leaving them open on the weak side. Far too often, Pope and Cheatham only have one teammate parked along the arc on the weak side to throw it out to when they get doubled. More times than not, one guy is too close to the man in the post of clogging up a driving lane. At times on Saturday, two Aztecs were standing next to each other in the weak side corner—that is not ideal, either.
Is this Pope’s team? Is it Jeremy Hemsley’s? Or is it Trey Kell’s? The vague blanket approach to push the pace more often in the preseason hasn’t really come to life at all. The Aztecs fare well playing fast…when their opponents force the issue. Hemsley, after a red hot start to the season, is stuck in a tough game of ‘passing when I should shoot/shooting when I could have passed’. Both Kell and Hemsley are scoring guards asked to share point guard duties.
This team doesn’t look much different in terms of pace and they certainly haven’t established any pattern of ball and body movement to spark a drive and kick attack. Pope and Cheatham bullying Loyola defenders in the post should have netted a relatively easy path to victory on Saturday. But the Aztecs defense faltered and those guys didn’t have much room to work with when they got a touch.
Heck, the Aztecs “had to” run a play just to get the ball in to Pope or Cheatham. They talked each other through a cross screen to get Hemsley the ball on the wing—any defense will see that coming from a mile away. Is Hemsley the only passer trusted to enter the ball into the post? Why does the team sleepwalk through that action? The offensive approach looks rigid and vague.
Again, this team isn’t short on talent to make it work. The sky is not falling. They have four guys that can get their own shot, shooters and slashers to put around them, and a strong rim runner to gobble up easy baskets. The Aztecs haven’t been loaded with this many 1-on-1 creators before. Transitioning quickly from defense to offense, on both misses and makes, could make it much easier to spread the rock. Maybe that transition is just around the corner. Remember—this roster has only been “whole” for 3 games. (Note: They are whole as can be. Fisher has told us Ben Perez will likely seek a medical redshirt.) The same team pulled away from Savannah State and their blistering pace early on and picked Cal apart on a neutral floor.
Wednesday’s trip to Grand Canyon had been circled twice, even before Saturday’s slip up. Teams still see SDSU as a program on a perch that they want to knock off. Only time will tell if Saturday’s loss was anything close to a fatal blow to a potential at large NCAA bid. One thing is for certain: A string of non-conference wins are in order for the toast of the Mountain West and the conference as a whole.